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Eternal City

My Neighbor, Virginia

When Vincenza Ann "Virginia" Filingeri Checkle died, 20th-century Brooklyn died with her.

Virginia in 2020 and Virginia as a ninth-grade student. (Cole Louison / the Checkle family)

I moved to Gowanus in 2004. Shortly after, I met Virginia, who lived next door. She would often stand out front of her house, wishing people good morning. One day, as I was heading to a temp job, she stopped me. 

"That jacket doesn't fit you," she said, rather bluntly, of what I was wearing. It was a Harris Tweed that had—she correctly surmised—belonged to my dad. "Bring it by tonight, and I'll fix it."

So I did. 

A few mornings later, she said to come by that night and pick up the jacket. 

It looked like a different object. She'd removed the sleeves and, without measurements, taken in the shoulders to fit me. The brass-colored lining had been replaced with an English racing-green that shimmered, and she'd sewn two new pockets. (I've yet to find another tailor who knows pockets.)

She would take no money, and in fact, on my way out, her husband Stevie gave me some tomatoes.

It was a puzzling and wonderful interaction, in a city that often, and sometimes always, seemed to me rushed and unfriendly. I realized soon after that I'd just met the matriarch of the block, who had lived there longer than anyone else, and seen and knew things I never would, or could. 

And so, when Virginia—Vincenza Ann Filingeri Checkle—passed away in February at the age of 97, at her home on Seventh Street, an old part of Brooklyn passed away with her.

Virginia's wedding day. (Courtesy of the Checkle family)

A seamstress, Virginia was born and raised nearby on Butler Street, on the other side of the Gowanus Canal. Her parents spoke Italian and her grandparents signed their names with an X.  

She and her sister went to St. Agnes, on the Irish side of town, and on the way to school, they'd often get jumped. They would fight back-to-back, fists up, encircled by their classmates. The school was Catholic, run by nuns who wouldn't call Italians by their real names. She stopped going around ninth grade—partly due to those fights with the Irish girls, partly due to disinterest, and partly because she wanted to make some money.  

Virginia was already learning the trade. Two years before, a girlfriend said she was making $8 a week doing "homework," attaching buckles onto brassiere straps, and needed help. Virginia started out sewing on her mother's foot-pumped Singer, and quickly grew proficient.

"That's how I learned the machine," she once told me, for a story that never ran.

Her first factory job was in Manhattan, which she referred to as "New York," at Superior Duck Clothing Company on Broome and Broadway. She hand-sewed buttons onto barber and butcher coats, and got paid off the books. 

By then she was dating Stevie, a 5-foot-7-inch blue-eyed boy from Pennsylvania coal country. One of 12 kids and the son of a miner, he'd enlisted after Pearl Harbor. Two years later, he came to New York, and stayed, working as a longshoreman at Pier 40, where West Houston met the Hudson River. 

They married in 1947, when they were 21 and 23. 

In 1951, they moved to Gowanus, and bought their brick townhouse on Seventh Street for $6,500. Their house was like most in the neighborhood: three-story, two-family units, with a backyard. Stevie planted heirloom tomatoes, and built pantry rooms off the back of almost every kitchen on the block. Three daughters soon came in quick succession: Joanne, Rosemary, and Stephanie.

The home on Seventh Street today. (Cole Louison / Hell Gate)

The year 1951 was a big one for the neighborhood, too: A new factory opened one block over, the new world headquarters of a top menswear company. The factory was 167,000 square feet, and employed 1,500 workers. The mayor cut the tape on opening day, and a 50-foot sign made of pipes, neon, and painted metal was installed on the roof. It read: "Home of EAGLE CLOTHES." 

Virginia worked on the line for men's pants. "Everyone wanted to work for them," she told me years later, as we were seated in the little booth in her kitchen on the house's bottom floor. "They were very fancy. Most factories are dirty. Eagle was spotless."

This was a golden era—a post-war boom fueled by FDR's New Deal. Factories opened throughout Brooklyn, especially in Gowanus. The biggest ones had neon signs: Kentile Floors, Domino Sugar, and Bruno Truck Sales. On Second Avenue and Ninth Street, the Kentile sign stood eight-stories high. (Workers say a big bird of prey used to perch on the G of the EAGLE sign.) 

Seventh Street in the 1940s. (NYC Department of Records and Information Services)

Gowanus also had organized crime. One boss cut off people's fingers. Another kept a lion in his basement. A few houses up Virginia's block lived a man with a pocked face. He seemed to be around the Citroen factory a lot, across from her house, and everyone knew the pocked man was up to no good. 

"My girls weren't allowed to walk on that side of the street," Virginia said. 

One day, the family watched police storm his house, and take the man away in handcuffs—his house had been a holding cell for a crime ring that was smuggling dope in from France. Agents seized nearly 250 pounds of heroin hidden inside a Citroen that was "decked out like a gadget car in a James Bond movie," according to the Daily News. The saga was captured in the book, then film, "The French Connection."   

Like all industrial towns, Gowanus also had old-world ways—Joe Bonavina, the boxer with a bar on the corner, lent neighbors money. So did Virginia, so much so that she was known as the "Bank of Virginia." The "good payers," as she put it, had good credit, but late-paying loan-askers often got sung a line from "Let's Put Out the Lights," the 1932 Rudy Valle song later covered by Dean Martin: "There's no more money in the bank." Still, she would often just tell people, "Pay me back when you can."

Of course, I didn't know any of this when I moved to the block, but over the years, as condos and rent grew around Gowanus, the Bank of Virginia remained. One summer morning, I woke up to someone screaming "PEDRO!" and looked out the window. Two doors down was Virginia, in her nightgown. A borrower had run out of time.

Gowanus seemed resistant to change, but it happened—I watched the first condos rise in Downtown Brooklyn, then make their way down Fourth Avenue. Some, like the Argyle, were 12 stories tall. An actor from "Game of Thrones" supposedly lived there. 

Stevie passed away in 2011 and was interred in Greenwood Cemetery. Virginia's kids asked her about selling the house. Her typical response: "Are you nuts?"

This was around the time we started having dinner at her house. She'd cook and I'd bring wine. Eventually, she gave me the key, so I could use Stevie's old workbench.

But more and more of the octogenarians were passing, and their houses were worth millions. A 12-story condo had gone up on the corner, and Patrick Stewart bought a place one block up. A gleaming new Whole Foods opened.

In 2012, the Eagle Clothes sign came down. The sign for Kentile Floors followed the year after, despite a Facebook page, a protest, and a local artist making T-shirts as part of a fundraising effort to save it.

(Missy S / Flickr)

In 2016, the house where I lived was sold, we all got evicted, and I moved away. When I stopped by Virginia's house for the last time, to drop off her key, she was clipping coupons at her kitchen table.

When COVID hit in 2020, she didn't leave home for a year. Visitors sat by the window, and they talked via phone. I stopped by one winter day, wearing a wool watchcap. 

"You know why that hat's red?" she asked. "So they can find you when you fall overboard."

An aide moved upstairs, and was with her when she died at her kitchen table, with one of her daughters on the phone. The service was at St. Thomas Aquinas, where all of her daughters were christened and then married, with calling hours at the funeral home next door. 

The house, of course, will now be sold. My old house recently sold (again) too, for almost $2.7 million, but the buyer lives in London. 

So, for now, both remain empty.

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